Opus 15: The Nose (1928)

The Nose, op. 15 (1928)
CD: Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater, Valery Gergiev (Mariinsky MAR0501)

And how came the nose into the baked roll? And what of Ivan Yakovlevitch? Oh, I cannot understand these points — absolutely I cannot. And the strangest, most unintelligible fact of all is that authors actually can select such occurrences for their subject! I confess this too to pass my comprehension, to — — But no; I will say just that I do not understand it. In the first place, a course of the sort never benefits the country. And in the second place — in the second place, a course of the sort never benefits anything at all. I cannot divine the use of it.

– Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose” (1835-36)

This is the earliest of Shostakovich’s works that I’ve seen performed live:  This spring my brother Jack and I met up in New York to see William Kentridge’s production at the Metropolitan Opera.  My thoughts on that show from a few months ago are here; Jack’s more concise reaction is here.  I claimed earlier that for this exercise I’d prefer videos of stage works to audio-only recordings, and there is a DVD production out there — but I had already bought this Mariinsky CD set to get familiar with the music before the New York trip, so with the Met staging fresh in my mind, as well as a sense of budgetary restraint for the blog project, I settled for listening through it again with the album’s included full dual-language libretto in hand.

I’d highly recommend that before you experience this opera you read its source, Gogol’s short story “The Nose”, not just because it’s very helpful in understanding what Shostakovich is up to, but because Gogol’s writing is hilarious.  (A not very copyright-compliant-looking copy is here, as of this writing.)  The plot — Major Kovalev’s nose mysteriously deserts his face and impersonates a State Councilor, only to return just as mysteriously — is pleasantly absurd, but the greater pleasure is Gogol’s send-up of a class of bureaucratically-minded 19th-century St. Petersburg residents, in particular in his characters’ absurd, officious, self-serving, and digressive speech.  Part of the opera’s function is to lovingly enact a series of these characteristically Gogolian episodes, which Shostakovich and his co-librettists track closely; in order to feel its charm it’s vital to know what’s being said, and (unless, I would guess, you speak Russian) it’s easier and more pleasurable to do that through the original story than through a live show or DVD’s subtitles (usually abridged) or by attempting to read along in real time.

Another joy of Gogol’s story is the attitude of the narrator; that voice is absent from the opera but the spirit of the music, particularly the orchestral setting, is analogous, although the it’s the composer rather than the writer whose authorial presence comes through.  Shostakovich here is at his most sprawling and expansive yet, using a musical language close to that of the preceding second symphony but much finer and more characterful in its detail work.  It’s provocative music, in that it stands in self-conscious contrast to the grand opera tradition:  It doesn’t break down the fourth wall a la Brecht but the musical setting maintains an ironic distance from the action onstage and keeps up an unremittingly satirical tone.  Especially early on, Shostakovich creates a constantly shifting, high-contrast musical surface:  In the first act, for instance, a thrilling, forward-charging interlude for percussion alone barrels straight into Kovalev’s introduction, a clownish mock-aria based on “the ‘B-r-rh!’ with his lips which he always did when he had been asleep”:

It’s striking and deeply enjoyable music but it also becomes wearying over its two-hour length (not counting intermissions).  The vocal lines are almost perversely unmemorable; they do at least allow the characters, as buffoonish as they are, to express some of pathos, while the orchestra’s affect never seems to vary beyond smirking social observation, general agitation, or all-out carnival atmospherics.  It seems strange to compare Shostakovich to Boulez but my reaction to, say, Boulez’ “Sur Incises” is similar to my feeling as The Nose plays on:  It’s a phenomenally engaging musical landscape but, although the music constantly changes moment to moment, over its whole run it begins to feel static, its range of motion limited.

The opera’s dramatic momentum works similarly, and I would guess that a given viewer’s or listener’s patience over time will track closely with their interest in meticulously set Gogolian dialog.  Even with my own great interest in this, the plot starts to go slack early in Act III (probably not coincidentally, in a scene synthesized by the librettists rather than taken directly from the short story) as a series of characters board a stage coach while the police lie in wait for the Nose.  This scene contains the opera’s only great misstep:  A woman selling bubliki (bagel-like bread rolls) enters and is harrassed by the police, in a moment that I believe Shostakovich and co. wanted to be comical, although I find it ugly and out of joint with the rest of the opera’s lightness of touch:

I do find an intriguing thematic connection, though, between the market woman’s sales-pitch song here (monotone repetitions of “bubliki” and “kupitye”, translated in the Mariinsky booklet as “buy some”) and Shostakovich’s distant second cello concerto (opus 126, composed in 1966), whose cello part borrows an Odessa street song with the same purpose and words (“Kupitye bubliki”) and whose soloist is similarly, if much more abstractly, harangued by the orchestra.  Musically the ideas are unrelated, so I don’t think it’s a strong connection, but I still wonder if Shostakovich had the early operatic scene in mind when he composed the later work.  (The opera itself had been suppressed and/or lost, like so much of the composer’s early work, for decades at that point; Gennady Rozhdestvensky first revived it in 1974.)

I don’t want to end by sounding too down on the opera, which ultimately makes for a brilliant musical spectacle.  Highlights abound:  Shostakovich’s appropriately churchy, sepulchural mood music as Kovalev confronts the Nose in the Kazan Cathedral (the composer, an atheist living in an atheistic state, never wrote sacred music, so this, despite its scrim of irony, may be his closest approach); Kovalev’s loopy exchange with an unsympathetic newspaper editor.  A pure musical delight is a folk song sung by Kovalev’s servant to balalaika accompaniment (and eventually, incongrously, an added flexatone), which despite the excesses of Ivan’s vocals is played fairly straight by Shostakovich and folded into the musical mix:

The conclusion of the opera — sorry to spoil its very end — contains my favorite character work.  Kovalev’s nose has been reaffixed to his face and he, never understanding what happened and having learned nothing from the event, strolls down the Nevsky Prospect and flirts with a salesgirl, full of joy verging on smugness and simple self-regard.  The brittle and lilting music (with that antic flexatone again) perfectly captures his state of mind, before a last drum crash abruptly drops the curtain:


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